Mari Selvaraj takes a giant leap with Karnan, arguably more gut-wrenching and bold in its messaging than Pariyerum Perumal.
Karnan is a young man waiting for a military job in a village that has no mercy from the State (oh, the spirited irony of this!). They don’t have a school, a hospital, not even a bus stand, despite having petitioned for it multiple times. They are forced to use the bus stand in a neighbouring village, where begins the abyss of indignities meted out to them. Mari Selvaraj’s sophomore film Karnan is about the village’s fight for dignity against a system that’s deliberately and cruelly stacked against them.
From the much smaller and somewhat subdued effort that was his previous film Pariyerum Perumal, Selvaraj takes a giant leap with Karnan, which is more forceful — both in its message and in making. One of my biggest concerns about Pariyerum Perumal was the submissiveness of the protagonist, Pariyan. He silently suffers unimaginable violence, standing up for himself in controlled ways. For Pariyan, as long as he could study, the violence is just inevitable irritation.
What would have happened if Pariyan wasn’t even allowed to board a bus on the first day of his college? What if Pariyan was denied the very thing he thought of as his ticket to a dignified life? That’s the story Selvaraj explores with Karnan. Naturally, this story is much darker, more violent, and gut-wrenching.
Karnan‘s biggest success is in the writing. In spite of bringing together dozens of characters, Selvaraj makes each one of them real. Yaman, played by an enchanting Lal, is the kindly godfather. A pillar of support for Karnan, while also protecting him from the dangers of the latter’s own anger. A widower still crushingly in love — filling heart and soul into Deva’s rendition of manjanathi puranam.
There is also the village leader who refuses to take down the towel wrapped around his head — a sign of subservience demanded by dominant castes; Yogi Babu’s character, who is cynical, but comes around; a young woman whose college-going dreams are crushed; the boy who raises a horse; the pregnant woman who stands up for her son; Karnan’s sister who is both proud and scared; the lover who puts up a good fight — Karnan‘s universe is made of multi-dimensional people, as complex as they’re grounded.
The best of Karnan is, of course, reserved for the eponymous hero. Dhanush is fantastic as Karnan, carrying an insatiable rage in his entire being. His journey from being the angry youngster who wants retaliation for everyday injustices to the village leader who simply wants his rights is poignant. As his enemy gets bigger and more powerful, Karnan gets stronger, yet more vulnerable.
There is a point in the film where he’s putting up his bravest face and gearing up for a fight against the police. He tells his lover, “you do know they’ll eventually catch and throw me in prison, right?” She says that she does and is willing to wait for him. In response, he asks, “what if they kill me while inside?” The scene lingers for just a moment, for us to see that Karnan knows that their protest — which the oppressor will see as provocation — will only beget more cruel violence.
Just a few minutes later, we see what an evolved, yet raging, leader would do. In the fantastic climax scene, Karnan pleads to his oppressor — even as he’s holding a sword to his throat — not to enrage him further. He doesn’t want revenge; he simply wants to be heard. Even when he’s lost so much, he’s working to prevent further damage. This Karnan too is generous, within the constraints of his lived reality.
The film takes its time to establish these characters, with good reason. Karnan is not the story of one person affecting another person in one incident. It is the culmination of historical violence meted out to an entire community by those in power. To understand Karnan’s rage, we need to see how everyone disregards his entire existence every day. The lack of a bus stop is a metaphor. What Selvaraj wants us to see is the cruelty that every one of us is capable of, even when the odds are truly low.
Take the example of the scene where Karnan requests a bus conductor to stop at his village, as over a dozen passengers need to get off. The conductor and driver pick a fight with him, abetting him to jump off a moving bus, but they wouldn’t stop for a second for the villagers to get off. The first half is full of many incidents like these.
We need to watch every one of these incidents to understand why the villagers are always fighting, why they keep yelling at each other, why the whole film is somewhat high-pitched — there is no other way their story could be told.
The boldest statement that Selvaraj makes is in presenting the police in the way he has. He makes no bones about showing them as the violent tool of an oppressive and casteist State. There is no good cop to counterbalance the bad ones. At best, there are helpless ones who hide in the toilet when unable to watch the atrocities around them. He offers no kindness to the Collectors, politicians and businessmen either.
For a film that’s written with such intricate care, the direction is patchy. It has some ingeniously beautiful moments, while others that fall flat. The motif of the young goddess lends a magical realist timbre to the film. It acts as a representation of the past, of everyone who has died from the apathy of the State and its people. The use of the landscape is phenomenal — the ponds, the rocks, the thorn shrubs and the barren lands adding a silent but tangible layer to the story itself.
Santhosh Narayanan’s background music elevates the film, at times surprising the audience, shaking us out of a reverie we might have fallen into. Utradheenga Yeppov is placed and filmed excellently — its job not to evoke a specific feeling, but perhaps stop us from suspending disbelief entirely. So clever and so impactful. Kandaa Vara Sollunga in the prologue offers a mythical quality to the film and its hero.
The film, however, struggles in what might be seen as mass hero scenes. The use of silhouettes to boost Karnan’s image feels feeble. His speech to the village about putting up a fight isn’t as roaring as it could be. The scene just before the climax between the father and son feels rushed, doing little for the emotional note.
Yet, these are minor blips in what’s a remarkable work of art. With Karnan, Mari Selvaraj establishes himself as a powerful voice in Tamil cinema, one that we all need to listen to. Dhanush shows yet again that he’s willing to back important scripts and deliver captivating performances. It is now the audience’s turn to watch, experience, debate and devour Karnan.